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Red, Blue—And Green: American University Achieves Carbon Neutrality

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Solar panels on the roof of an AU building. As part of the carbon neutral plan, about 2,500 solar panels were installed on campus. AU also entered into a partnership to install solar panels in North Carolina.
As part of the carbon neutral plan, about 2,500 solar panels were installed on campus. AU also entered into a partnership to install solar panels in North Carolina.

Is tackling climate change the greatest challenge of our time? Will sustainability questions dominate the 21st century? American University is not only part of this conversation, but it's taking aggressive steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and protect the planet. AU is now the first US university to become carbon neutral, meaning it has a net zero carbon footprint. How did the university accomplish this feat two years before its 2020 goal? To understand AU's environmental strategy, University Communications and Marketing spoke with AU director of sustainability programs Megan Litke. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

UCM: How did the university reach carbon neutrality?

Litke: In 2010, former President Neil Kerwin committed the university to working toward achieving carbon neutrality. When we embarked on that journey, we came up with a plan that would help us get there. That started with reducing our carbon emissions by as much as we possibly could, meaning that we were going to build green buildings, and we were going to manage our spaces efficiently. We were going to use behavior change to inspire people to turn off lights and reduce the amount of emissions they're personally creating on campus. We built our buildings to LEED Gold standards, and we started managing our spaces using techniques that are environmentally friendly. Making sure that they're operating efficiently, and that we're using green techniques indoors to clean the buildings.

The next step was to install renewables on campus. Unfortunately, because it takes a lot of square footage to install solar panels, we're only able to install so many on campus. We have about 2,500 panels on campus, but that only meets a small amount of our electricity demand. So, we partnered with George Washington University and George Washington University Hospital to install solar panels in North Carolina.

We also buy renewable energy credits to balance out the rest of our electricity use. Between our onsite renewables, our renewables in North Carolina, and our energy credits, we are 100 percent renewable in terms of our electricity use on campus. The last piece of the equation to getting to carbon neutrality was using carbon offsets to deal with emissions that are difficult to reduce.

UCM: What are some emissions that are difficult to reduce?

Litke: Things like air travel and commuting, and our use of natural gas on campus for heat and hot water. We have driven those down as much as we can at this point. We do that by providing options for transportation and improving our efficiencies around the way we heat and provide hot water. But we were still left with some emissions from those sources, and we wanted to be thoughtful in the ways that we offset them.

We looked at our study abroad travel. That's a unique source of emissions, because it's a program we greatly value, and we don't want to decrease the amount of air travel for it. We found offsets in Kenya, which is the home of one of our premier study abroad locations. We've invested in a cookstove project there, which provides women with jobs, decreases deforestation in the area, and improves indoor air quality for families using the cookstoves. In addition to environmental benefits that help us offset our study abroad emissions, there are a lot of benefits in the social and economic realms of sustainability.

UCM: How is achieving carbon neutrality a story of technological innovation and strategic planning?

Litke: First and foremost, I would say that carbon neutrality is a story of strategic planning. It's nearly a decade-long process, and there've been many decisions that have gone into how we manage our outdoor and indoor environments. How we're engaging students across campus, how we're engaging students in the classroom. There are a lot of components, working together, that help us create a culture of sustainability. The technology is ever-evolving. When we signed this pledge, the solutions that were available to us were different than the solutions that are available to us today. And while we have this solution now for using efficient technologies in our buildings, newer and better technologies are going to be available in the future. We'll continue to decrease our emissions, and ultimately the number of offsets that we'll need to remain carbon neutral.

UCM: Can you expand on how AU produced the renewable energy on campus within the electricity grid?

Litke: The 2,500 solar panels on campus include both solar thermal and photovoltaic, which produce electricity. We use the solar thermal panels in places where we use a lot of hot water, such as our residence halls. We have photovoltaic in a variety of other spaces on campus. We worked with a power purchase agreement to install most of those, and we own a few of them outright at the School of International Service. When we maxed out the number of solar panels that we could put on our roofs, we looked to another option within our grid. And that's when we worked with GW and GW Hospital to build solar panels in North Carolina. And even though it's not in Washington, DC, it's still in our electricity grid. Essentially, they're producing the renewable energy there, and we're using energy here. And we're able to directly buy the renewable energy from the North Carolina project.

UCM: How have we encouraged people to reduce consumption and make better choices?

Litke: Our sustainability efforts have included working with students, staff, and faculty to provide a variety of options for them to be engaged. And we encourage different individual choices to reduce your consumption on campus. We make sure we have all our waste bins on campus, that we offer recycling and compost. We also want to make sure that people are purchasing things in their offices that are responsible. Through our Green Office Program, we incentivize and recognize offices that are making green choices every day. We work with our student sustainability educators on the Waste Race, where all the residence halls compete against each other to see who can reduce the most waste. And we work with faculty members to help them incorporate sustainability into their classrooms and encourage their students to take on environmentally friendly practices.

UCM: How has AU promoted alternative means of transportation?

Litke: We want to provide people with a variety of options, so they don't have to drive to campus every day. We have partnered with WMATA to provide U•Pass for students, so they are able to have unlimited access to Metro after they pay a fee in their student fees every semester. We have provided faculty and staff with different options for parking, so that they don't have to drive every day. And then we've partnered with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association to bring education to campus around city biking.

UCM: President Burwell signed 'We Are Still In' on behalf of AU, the pledge to continue the nation's earlier commitments to the Paris Agreement. How is reaching carbon neutrality part of AU's efforts to combat climate change and be good global citizens?

Litke: Our involvement in that commitment is really saying that even though the federal government has decided to not move forward with the Paris climate accord, we, as a private institution, will continue to move forward. We'll try to do our part to meet the goals of the climate accord. What's really exciting about the We Are Still In commitment is that it's cross-sector. For the first time, instead of just signing a pledge with other universities, we're signing with businesses, local municipalities, and nonprofits. All of us are really working together to figure out how we can move forward as nongovernmental players in solving climate change. Achieving carbon neutrality really lives in our commitment that we can play a unique role in addressing environmental issues. As a university, we will not only manage our spaces more efficiently and with the environment in mind, but we also can reach future leaders who are walking through our doors every day. And they'll be able to take their knowledge of sustainability into whatever career path they choose to pursue.

UCM: We're not automatically carbon neutral forever. How do we maintain carbon neutrality going forward?

Litke: Yes, having achieved carbon neutrality doesn't mean that this work is done, or that we have found a permanent solution. In a few years, there might be a better way to manage buildings, and we'll have to continue to invest in those technologies. In terms of our offsets, we will revisit those every couple of years to figure out if we're still purchasing offsets that are in line with our goals as an institution. Ultimately, the goal will be to reduce our emissions on campus to the point where we won't need to buy offsets. We'll have to rely obviously on technology-there are no solar planes yet, but hopefully someday! A lot of things we do require constant revisiting.

UCM: Why was AU able to achieve this before other universities?

Litke: I think American University was able to achieve carbon neutrality early-and even the 2020 target was incredibly ambitious-because people across campus have been really successful in creating a culture of sustainability. We have these commitments that are literally written on our buses. You can't walk around campus without seeing signs for the Arboretum, or a sign talking about a rain garden, and it's just become so instilled in our culture. It's part of how we make decisions around our infrastructure-making sure that every day choices involve thinking about sustainability. I would say that both President Kerwin and President Burwell deserve a lot of credit for their leadership and commitment to sustainability. That has shone through at the top level of the university, and it has really influenced how the rest of us are able to implement these strategies. And it's hard to just single out a few names or offices, because so many people at AU have been involved in this. It's really been an effort that we see across campus.